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Visualising a Battambang artist’s journey out of addiction

Nget Chanpenh’s Drowning, which shows the difficulty of pulling people out of addiction without also being consumed by it. Photo supplied
Nget Chanpenh’s Drowning, which shows the difficulty of pulling people out of addiction without also being consumed by it. Photo supplied

Visualising a Battambang artist’s journey out of addiction

Nget Chanpenh, a 23-year-old artist living in Battambang, says he feels like he has woken from a nightmare, with only his work as evidence.

Over 18 months, Chanpenh was a drug user as well as a painter, and his new exhibition opening tonight is an intimate portrayal of his darkest period under the influence of methamphetamine, or “ice”.

Each of the 18 paintings on display in Waiting for the Ice to Melt represents 18 months along the journey into and under addiction, before finally coming out of it and attempting to undo the damage.

One of the founding members of the Battambang-based Romcheik 5 collective, Chanpenh graduated from Phare Ponleu Selpak in 2013. Two years later, however, he began dabbling with meth, which quickly grew into a full-blown addiction. Ironically, he first tried the drug while he was trying to help a friend who had become a drug user. To be closer to him, he gave it a try, and before long he too was hooked. One of the show’s paintings, called Drowning, depicts this period, and shows two people with outstretched arms trying to reach a pair of flailing hands. Unbeknownst to the two helpers, they too are submerged and, it is implied, are on the same downward path as those they are trying to help.

Other paintings in the series show the rifts exposed by drugs among his group of friends, including within the collective; another artist among the four also became addicted to meth, which divided the house they all share and led him to move to Thailand for work to recover.

Painter Nget Chanpenh at Meta House yesterday, where his exhibition is opening tonight.
Painter Nget Chanpenh at Meta House yesterday, where his exhibition is opening tonight. Hong Menea

Eventually, Chanpenh reevaluated his life and, remarkably, was able to quit using without medical help.

“When I was alone I started to think and evaluate the importance of life, choosing between friends and drugs, which one I liked the most,” he says. “I loved the connection between my friends . . . So I gave up drugs and tried to retrieve the relationships.”

While Chanpenh says he doesn’t have a set style, Alain Troulet, a supporter of the collective, says all of his paintings have been of intimate and personal moments from his private life.

“He’s a psychotherapist and patient at the same time,” Troulet says. “He discovers himself through his painting.” Chanpenh is even blunter, comparing his process to a sort of emotional purge.

“I just want to spill out everything from my intestines onto the painting,” he says.

Waiting for the Ice to Melt opens this evening at 6pm at Meta House, #37 Sothearos Boulevard. Chanpenh will speak briefly about his experiences at 8pm, before a screening of short films related to methamphetamine use in Southeast Asia. The exhibition runs through August 27.

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